31 December 2018

Homily for the First Sunday after Christmas (2018)

"Holding Life"
Luke 2:22-40

The world has put away the trees and decorations, but the Church still gets to celebrate Christmas. The world has entered the time of returning and exchanging gifts, but the Church still gets to ponder and treasure the gift of all gifts—God’s beloved Son become flesh. The world packs up and moves on to the next thing in its death-avoiding, stuff-centered life, but the Church still gets to meditate on and receive Life Himself as He comes to us in His Body and Blood.

Please, do not grow weary of the Church’s extended Christmas celebration! Let’s not strip the Christmas things away too soon! The world may see December 25th as the end of its rush-rush, get-more season, but the Church sees the 25th as just the beginning—the beginning of celebrating Life itself, Life-in-the-flesh for us.

But there’s a tension. That line between Church and world does not divide as neatly as we would like. It’s not us versus them. You and I live with feet firmly planted in both places. We are in the world, but not of it. Your birthday makes you a citizen of the world. Holy Baptism makes you a citizen of God’s Church and Kingdom. So that dividing line between Church and world cuts right through each of us, right through our very hearts.

Because of your birthday, you live from birth to death. That specter of death governs much of how you live your life—why you succumb to fear, why you are so harried and stressed, why you are so insistent on not missing out or even asserting your rights. No one wants to think about it, but the end of your birth lurks just around the corner; and it can snatch you at any moment. So you live your whole life trying to ignore death’s control over you and, at the same time, trying to run from it. You and I live as if this life and this world are all that matter.

But because of Baptism, you have a different calling. Your Baptism calls you to live as if God actually matters. It allows you to live from birth to life. Sure, each of us must still undergo that death we fear. But the waters of Baptism promise you that this death has already been dealt with. You have been drowned in the waters of Baptism, and so death no longer has a hold on you. Now Life Himself holds you and even lives within you. Now you need not fear death or anything else.

You see, when our Lord who is Life is given to you—washed over you, spoken into your ears, placed into your mouth—when you have this Life who destroyed death, when you have this Life who promises to be with you and see you safely through this world and into the next, then why be afraid of anyone or anything? Why let anyone or anything else control you? Why live your life in any way that goes against Life Himself? Why let anyone or anything else keep you from receiving this Life regularly?

Why? Because the fear of death and the world’s enticements are often strong and successful. They routinely succeed at pushing Life Himself out of your mind, out of your heart, and out of your daily living. No, Lord of Life Jesus does not loosen His hold on you. And, no, death and the world cannot loosen or pry His hold from you. Rather, you and I hold on more firmly to the world’s “life-to-death” vision, and we end up losing sight of the Lord’s “death-to-life” truth. But the Lord’s “death-to-life” way is what’s real. It’s what we have received.

Our Lord’s “death-to-life” truth—that’s what distinguishes the church from the world. Our Lord’s “death-to-life” truth gives you the courage to live against the world, against your sinful inclinations, and against your fear of death. In this “death-to-life” reality, our Lord plants Himself in you, so that you no longer live for yourself. Now He lives in you and with you and through you.

What does this look like? Look at old Simeon. Simeon lives for only one purpose—to embrace and hold on to Life. But Simeon does not embrace the world’s life, that “life-to-death” vision. Nor does he embrace his own concept of life or someone else’s. Instead, Simeon embraces Life Himself—Life in the flesh.

Now even as Simeon cradles Life in his arms and looks Life in the eye, he does see death—along with persecution, temptation, heartache, turmoil, evil, suffering, and cross. But Simeon will not be scared by these things. He will not let the world and the world’s devil take away the Life he holds. And Simeon will not let the horror he sees tear his heart away from the Life he holds and relies on. Instead, aged Simeon holds Life up and speaks a blessing.

“Behold, this Child—this Life in the flesh—is born to give life by being put to death. This Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel. He will clearly draw the line between Church and world, between life and death. He will make it plain that you cannot live the world’s life and still live after death. And He will call everyone from death to life, but few will hear, few will care to follow. Therefore, this Child will be a sign that will be opposed and spoken against. That opposition will be a sword piercing through your own soul because you embrace Him as I do. But don’t be afraid! Even as the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed, this Child is the Sun of Righteousness who brings healing in His wings.”

So do you see how old Simeon embraces Life? He blesses what others may curse. He blesses the suffering, the cross, and the death of the Christ Child. Simeon knows why our Lord Jesus “came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary.” It was not simply so that our God and Lord may have a taste of what it’s like to be human. It was not so that we may feel better about God, about our relationship with Him, or even about life in general. This Child whom Simeon holds and embraces is Life Himself. He is born to sustain and deliver those who are tempted, those who suffer, those who will die. He is born not to live a life we could never live, but to give us a life we could never have. He is born not to make our suffering go away, but to usher us safely through this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven.

Christmas really does mean so much more than “Happy Birthday, Jesus.” Christmas means that Life Himself has come into our flesh to bear our sin and be our Savior. Amen.

27 December 2018

Homily for the Nativity of Our Lord-Christmas Day (2018)

"Our Divine Dwelling Place"
John 1:1-18

Christmas and home just go together. Bing Crosby made the words famous in 1943, and Michael BublĂ© still croons them: “I’ll be home for Christmas / You can count on me.” Other well known pop singers title their holiday album “Home for Christmas” or sing songs such as “Christmas Is Coming Home.”

Home is a treasured thing, to be sure. We pray that our homes may be “a shelter for the defenseless, a fortress for the tempted, a resting place for the weary, and a foretaste of our eternal home” with God Himself (LSB Agenda, 70). Home is not just a physical space; it gives us roots, identity, security, a sense of belonging, and a place of emotional wellbeing. At home we can laugh without being shy, and our tears can dry at their own pace. Our feet may leave our homes, but not our hearts. As someone once quipped, “Home is a place you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to.”

Treasuring home and longing for home, though, are much more than sentimentality. They go to the very core of our being as God’s created people. We are created to be at home with the living God. He is our truest and best home. But we come from a long line of people looking to leave home, strike out on their own, and even run away from home. Sure, Adam and Eve were given their eviction notice from the Garden of Eden and compelled to leave, but truthfully they had already run away from their true home—from God Himself—by eating that piece of fruit. Thus “The world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him.” Even when “He came to his own,…his own people did not receive Him.”

So the real reason for this season, and this day especially, is us homeless waifs. We wander through life searching for meaning and purpose on our own. We look for some place…any place…and some way…any way…to belong, to be accepted, to feel at home in this fallen world. But since we have left our true home, who is God Himself, our searching is vain and our wandering is aimless. We pile all of our worldly goods of self-sufficiency and self-determination into our rusty, beat up shopping carts with squeaky wheels as we wander through this fallen world. The homelessness of our human fallenness actually leads us to view our cardboard shanty town dwellings as though they were fabulous mansions. But we know they’re not. And we cannot escape the isolating illness of our sin, nor can we avoid the biting cold of death.

So the Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, left His eternal home to bring us in out of the cold. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” He was in a face-to-face relationship with God the Father from eternity. ”And the Word was God.” The Word Himself was and is the same divine essence as the Father. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” He took on our very skin and bones, our body and soul, eyes, ears, and all our members. “Dwelt among us” can also be translated “tented among us” or “tabernacled among us.” But this was no temporary “tenting” or “dwelling.” The Son of God did not become flesh only to disrobe Himself of our humanity when He was done with it. Nor did He cease dwelling among us when He ascended to the Father’s right hand.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” in order to bring us in out of the cold of our sinful rebellion. He became flesh to bring us home to God for all eternity—home where we receive His healing for our disease of sin; home where we may bask in His life-giving warmth, shielded and delivered from the coldness of death.

Moses proclaimed this homecoming long before Christmas: “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Dt. 33:27). He also teaches us to pray, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations” (Ps. 90:1). We even get to see what God’s dwelling place—our true home—looked like in Moses’ day. It included bases and frames, poles and pillars, and skins and cloth placed over them. In its central room was the beautiful golden ark with the mercy seat on top. Here’s where “the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” Here’s where and how the LORD would be with His people throughout their journey in the wilderness and into the Promised Land. Though they were wandering, they were still at home, because God was their divine dwelling place.

Even when God’s people became homeless in Babylonian exile, God still wanted to bring them home to Him. Ezekiel proclaimed God’s promise of homecoming: “My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore” (Ezek. 37:27-28). That promise came somewhat true when the people returned to their own land. But it became completely fulfilled when the Word became flesh.

You see, when the Word became flesh to dwell among us—to bring us home—He came to bring us the fullness of His grace and truth. “And from His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” Gifts abounding more than under any Christmas tree and more enduring than any we can unwrap last night or today. Forgiveness for our many doubts and misplaced priorities. Life to combat the coldness of death. And salvation as the best gift of all from the Word become flesh who came to die on a cross. To all who believe in His name, He gives the right to become children of God—children in God’s home, both now and for eternity.

Oh, we do not have that right by our own birth, but we do have it in the rebirth Jesus gives by water and the Spirit. We do not have that right by our own bloodline, but we do have it through the blood of Jesus, both on the cross and at the altar. We do not have the right to be in God’s home as His children by the will of our flesh or any other human plan or design. No, we only have this right because “of God.” The Word of God. The Word who became flesh and remains flesh. The Word who dwelt and still dwells with us. “In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:22).

On this Christmas 2018, we find ourselves a bit homeless in our own building—gathering in a basement auditorium doubling as a sacred sanctuary. Despite appearances, though, we are still at home in our divine dwelling place—not the brick and mortar, but in our flesh and blood Savior. And even as we eagerly await returning to the sanctuary, we are even more eager in anticipating our eternal home. It’s the home the Apostle John heard promised for all of us: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God’” (Rev. 21:3).

Today as we celebrate our Savior’s Incarnation, and as we enjoy our various family traditions, we rejoice in our divine dwelling place. We are home for Christmas. We can count on Jesus. Amen.

Homily for the Nativity of Our Lord-Christmas Eve (2018)

"Pondering the Mystery"
Luke 2:1-7

The Angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a bush that burned with fiery flame, but was not consumed (Ex. 3). That Angel of the Lord was the Son of God, before He took on human flesh. In that burning bush we get a preview of our Lord’s Incarnation. The Lord was about to rescue Israel from slavery in Egypt. When He takes on our humanity, He comes to rescue us from slavery to sin and death. The bush was not consumed by the fire; our Lord’s human nature is not consumed by His divine nature. The Lord God is “a consuming fire” and He “dwells in unapproachable light,” but His human nature is not harmed by His divine nature. “In Him the whole fullness of the deity dwells bodily.” This Child is true God and true man.

Tonight we celebrate the mystery of God the Son taking on our human nature. Let’s imitate Moses as he approached the burning bush to see why it was not consumed. Let’s ponder this mystery and miracle of Christ being both God and Man. As Moses took off his shoes on that holy ground, let’s take off the shoes of our sin-stained thoughts and come near with the bare feet of humility and faith given by God. Let’s ponder the time of Jesus’ Birth, then the place, then His mother, and finally the manner of His Birth.

Let’s ponder THE TIME. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Caesar Augustus was perhaps the most powerful emperor of Rome. He united the Romans and reigned at a time of peace and prosperity. So Augustus decreed a registration—a census—for taxing his united empire. It’s into this world the Son of Almighty God comes—the universal King, who alone holds all power and peace. But He comes to bring His eternal kingdom. He comes during a time of Roman peace to bring the  peace that surpasses all understanding. He is the “Prince of Peace.” He’s born into this world of sin and death to set the human race at peace with God once again. He wants to give the true, inner peace of faith in Him and His salvation. “For where there is faith, there is Christ; where there is Christ, there is God’s grace; where there is grace, there is peace and joy of the heart” (Gerhard, Postilla I:48). “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1).

We also note that our Lord was born at a time of census and taxation. But He does not come to tax us. No, He comes to keep the taxing Law of God Himself. “God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). He comes to free us from the curse—the taxation—of God’s Law. In fact, our New-born King registers our names in His Book of Life. “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Lk. 10:20). More than that, because our Lord has taken on our human nature, you can rejoice when He tells you, “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Is. 49:16). “Yes, He loved His people, all His holy ones [are] in his hand” (Dt. 33:3).

Infant King Jesus does not burden us with taxation, as do Caesar or Uncle Sam. Instead, He rescues us from the debt and taxation of sin and death. “To us a Child is born, to us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder” (Is. 9:6). Earthly governments may govern on the shoulders of their subjects or citizens, but King Jesus carries the load of His eternal kingdom on His own shoulders; He willingly takes the burden of sin and death upon Himself.

Let’s ponder THE PLACE of our Lord’s Birth. “Joseph went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David.” Joseph and Mary resided in the backwater town of Nazareth. But that’s not where the Christ was to be born. Micah had prophesied: “You, O Bethlehem…, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for Me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Mic. 5:2). God knew how to fulfill His promise through Caesar’s decree. That’s how God works for us too. We all suffer worldly troubles, personal mishaps, interpersonal strife, individual illnesses and limitations. And yet God works through these things to achieve His purpose. What purpose? To turn our hearts away from other helpers so that we may cling solely to Jesus for help and comfort. Not only is Christ born in Bethlehem, but He is also born in us. And He gives peace. He said, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). It all starts in Bethlehem.

And speaking of Bethlehem, there’s great comfort and joy in that name. It means “house of bread.” This Babe born in “House of Bread” is the true food for our hungry souls. He says, “I am the Bread of Life…. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.  And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Jn. 6:48, 51). We get to leave the insignificant, little villages of our self-serving hearts and minds, and we get to receive the Food of the Christ, the food that fills and satisfies our souls—our lives—with His grace, with His mercy, with His life.

Let’s ponder our Lord’s VIRGIN MOTHER. Why be born of a young virgin girl? Isaiah had foretold it: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (Is. 7:14). Mary fulfills that promise. But how can a child be born of a virgin? God has a unique way of bringing something out of nothing. In the Old Testament Aaron’s staff “sprouted and put forth buds and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds” (Num. 17:8). On one day Gideon’s fleece (a lamb skin, not a sweatshirt) was filled with dew water, but the ground was completely dry. Then the next day the ground was covered with dew, but Gideon’s fleece was dry as a bone (Judg. 6:36-40). In the same way, God works supernaturally through Mary. By the Holy Spirit, Mary, a natural virgin, produces the supernatural fruit of the Christ Child. Through the Holy Spirit’s work, Mary was filled with the heavenly dew of Christ the Savior. As Isaiah foretold: “Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down righteousness” (Is. 45:8). When Jesus is born, the dew of His righteousness, salvation, and forgiveness is spread over all the earth. And Mary remained pure virgin after the birth just as before the birth.

Why was the Christ Child born of a Virgin? So that He might be born without sin. You see, if He were born in the normal, natural way, the infection of sin would have been passed on to Him too. But Jesus wanted to take on pure, holy, untainted flesh, in order to heal our sinful, tainted human nature.

And the mystery of Jesus’ Virgin Mother applies to us in another way. Just as Mary was at the same time a virgin and a mother, the Christian Church is also both virgin and mother. As a virgin, the Church lives in complete fidelity to her coming Bridegroom, Jesus. And the consummation of that relationship will come at the eternal wedding feast. And as a mother, the Church daily conceives and bears and nurtures us, the children of God, children “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1:13).

Finally, let’s ponder THE MANNER of our Lord’s Birth. “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the [guest room].” In the home where Joseph and Mary most likely stayed that night, the guest room was already taken. So after Mary gave birth, she placed her Child in a manger at the back of the main family living room. This Little Child came into the world to rescue us and all sinners. We humans have been driven out of Paradise because of our own sin and rebellion. So, this Little Child comes to bring us back to our heavenly home. He comes to where we are in order to find us and lead us home. Psalm 49 says, “Man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish” (49:12). How fitting, then, that the King of the Universe should be born and placed in a feeding trough. It’s where He would find us in order to lead us back home to His heavenly Paradise.

So, He humbles Himself to exalt us. By His poverty we become rich. He becomes weak to make us strong once again. He takes our debt of sin and pays it in full, and He frees us to enjoy the wealth of His eternal mercy. As Johann Gerhard proclaimed on this day some 400 years ago: “If a rich brother can bequeath the inheritance of the father’s treasures to his brothers and sisters, how much more will not this our wealthy Brother, who is Lord of heaven and earth, be able to give us the kingdom of His treasures which He has won for us through His birth in poverty, through His holy life and through His bitter death! By grace He wants to do this. Amen.” (Postilla, I:54)

24 December 2018

Homily for Advent 4 - Rorate Coeli (2018)

Who Are You?
John 1:19-29

Who are you, John? This is now the second week we’ve pondered the identity of John the Baptizer. Last week we heard John asking if Jesus was the “Coming One.” Jesus answered, “Yes, just look at the words that I speak and the works that I do.” Jesus was rolling back sin and death. The blind could see. The deaf could hear. The Gospel was preached to the poor. And then Jesus drew our attention to who John really was—a prophet, yes, but more than a prophet. “Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matt. 11:11).

Today we hear the question again: “Who are you, John?” This time we receive a different kind of answer—not one telling us who John is, but telling us who John is not. “No,” John says, “I am not the Christ.” On this Sunday before Christmas, John the Baptist shows us how to deflect attention away from ourselves and instead focus ourselves, and others, on the true Christ.

“John, who are you, anyway?” John was at the highpoint of his preaching career. He was proclaiming repentance and baptizing for forgiveness, and crowds were going out in droves to see him. John was successful! So the priests and the Levites came to John, asking, “Who are you?”

This was no question of basic identity, such as “What’s your name?” or “Where do you work?” No, this was a question with another question—even a hope and a dream—hiding behind it. You see, these Jewish leaders respected John. He was from a priestly family. They liked his way of life, complete with camel’s hair wardrobe and that austere diet of locusts and wild honey. They liked his preaching of repentance. After all, fire and brimstone always appeals to the good and the religious.

Contrast all of that with what the Jews knew about Jesus. As far as they knew, He was the son of a lowly carpenter. And He came from that wretched little village called Nazareth. Can anything good come from there?

But John, John, he’s our man, they thought. If only they could get him—lure him, convince him—to confess that he was the anointed one, then they would love for him to be the long-promised Messiah. You see, these good, religious folks wanted a Savior of their own choosing.

But John burst their bubble! “He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.” Then he just had to add, “And no, I’m not Elijah either. And no, I’m not  ‘the Prophet’ either.” “Well, then, who are you?” they persisted. So John said he’s “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” John’s vocation—his whole purpose in life—was to speak of Someone Else, point to Someone Else.

So these priests and Levites asked a different question. “Well, if you’re not the Christ or the Elijah or the Prophet, then why are you baptizing?” And John answered that he was baptizing simply to prepare for the true Christ. After all, John knew he was not worthy to untie the sandal of the true Savior. All of John’s actions and explanations bring to mind a quote by someone called “Anonymous”: “Humility is the acceptance of the place appointed by God, whether it be in the front or in the rear.” John knew and accepted his place appointed by God. And John’s place was not in the front as the Messiah, but in the rear, pointing to the Savior.

Let’s ask the question of ourselves. “Christian, who are you, anyway?” Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, or wife? Are you a worn-out worker or a stressed-out student? Are you a frantic, frazzled shopper, decorator, baker, or party-goer? How about that identity we like to keep secret: “sinner”? Or do you look in the mirror and see your very own self-made savior?

You see, who you are comes out in what you do. If only you can find that perfect gift for that someone special, then you will really make their Christmas. If only you can receive just the right gift, then you can proclaim this a wonderful Christmas. If only you can get the clerk at the store to say “Merry Christmas,” not just “Happy Holidays,” then all will be merry. If only you can get that overgrown To-Do list done, bake all the goodies, run all the errands, sing all the right songs, then you will make it a “good Christmas.”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with these activities. Not at all. But God wants to shine the light of His Truth on you and what lurks within you—that identity we’d all rather keep secret, that identity of “sinner.” You see, the real reason for the season is, yes,…our sin. We—yes, we Christians—are sinners who need the real Savior. What really matters is that you and I are not the Christ. You and I really don’t make the season any “more Christmas” or any “less Christmas.” We are the ones who need the Christ. We are the ones who need to keep Christ in Christmas—for others and for our own sake.

So as we prepare to celebrate the joys of Jesus’ Birth, let’s learn to imitate John. That’s why we heard that extra verse at the end of the Gospel reading. “The next day [John] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” (Jn. 1:29). Now there’s the Messiah—the Christ! There’s the Savior for you, for me, for everyone around us. I’m not the Christ. You’re not the Christ. But Jesus? He is the Christ! He’s the Messiah wrapped in swaddling cloths and placed in a grungy feeding trough. He’s the Coming One anointed by the Holy Spirit in the humble water of the Jordan River. He’s the One who endured the shame of betrayal by His friends, felt the sting of Pilate’s lash, bore the crown of thorns, and heard the jeers and taunts of unbelief. He’s the One who felt the metal spikes piercing His flesh and crunching His bones. He’s the One who endured forsakenness from His Father. He’s the One who slept in the breathless silence and darkness of death. And—are you ready?—He’s the One who received the sudden resuscitation of resurrection life! Who is that? The real Christ! Your true Savior! Jesus Himself!

That’s why we learn to imitate John and say, “He must increase; I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30). You see, when you and I decrease, and when Jesus increases as the real reason for this joyous season, we find that He increases us in Himself. How does St. Paul say it today? “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand.” Christmas is coming soon. Immanuel is God with us and among us. And He comes to change who YOU are.

The prophet Isaiah said: “And they shall be called The Holy People, The Redeemed of the LORD; and you shall be called Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken” (Is. 62:12). The apostle Peter echoed that. Who are you in Christ, the real Savior? “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Pet. 2:9-10).

Who are YOU, people of Hope? You are a people confessing the true Christ, both individually and together. What does that look like? It looks a lot like John that day beside the Jordan River. It looks like people looking beyond themselves. It looks like people fixing their eyes on Jesus and pointing others to Jesus. It looks like each of us building one another up by pointing to Christ, the Lamb of God. It looks like each of us inviting others to come and celebrate Christ and His coming, the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. It looks like people at peace, because the real Savior, the Lamb of God, is near.

Who are you, people of God? You are people who live in the comfort, joy and confidence of St. Paul’s words: “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). Amen.

17 December 2018

Homily for Advent 3 - Gaudete (2018)

"Less Than a Failure" 
Matthew 11:2-11

Jesus says there’s no one greater in the human race than John the Baptist. Then He seems to contradict Himself. He also says, “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John].” How can he be the greatest and then someone lesser than he becomes greater than he? Does that make John’s greatness a failure? Actually, John’s greatness is that he was a failure—by worldly standards, that is. And if you want to be great in the kingdom of heaven, you need to be less than John, less than a failure.

If you want to talk greatness and success, John the Baptist does not seem to qualify. In today’s reading, he’s in prison and about to lose his head, quite literally. But let’s push the rewind button on John’s life. He was miraculously born, yes, but he was an only child of older parents, and he did not have a family of his own. After his circumcision and naming ceremony, John “grew and became strong in spirit,” but he “was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel” (Lk. 1:80). John probably grew up and learned God’s Word at Qumran, an isolated, monastic-like community in the desert. Nothing too great about that!

And consider when John did appear to Israel. He came looking rugged and ragged, wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt. He fasted from wine and strong drink, and he ate, of all things, locusts and wild honey. So much for greatness there! In addition to his wild look and his wilderness food, John no doubt came across as a wild-eyed preacher of repentance. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 3:2). He told the crowds to “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Mt. 3:8) and not rest on the laurels of their ancestry. He told tax collectors to be fair. He told soldiers not to shake people down, but be content with their wages. He told people with extra clothing to give it away to the poor. John even called on the governing official to repent of his sins. That’s what landed him in prison to await execution. By worldly standards, John was an abject failure.

Still Jesus says, “Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” You see, John had the great distinction of preparing the way for God’s promised Messiah. John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He was no reed shaken by the winds of cultural trends and faddish teaching for itching ears. No, John was a mighty oak planted by the rivers of God’s unchanging Truth. He did not come in the soft clothing of pampered royalty, but in the rough garments of a prophet proclaiming the coming of God in the flesh. That’s what makes John great—a failure in the eyes of the world, but great in God’s plan of restoring us to life with Him.

This really is an odd message for this Third Sunday in Advent. The Latin name for today is Gaudete!—“Rejoice!” Notice the rose colored candle on the Advent wreath is lit. For two weeks the Church has turned her attention to repenting, fasting, praying, giving to the poor, cleaning the house of the soul, and preparing for the Savior to come. Today, though, we get a little joy thrown in to lighten the mood of preparation. But it’s a restrained joy. It’s not yet time for the exuberant celebration. That will come, but for now, this little bit of joy sustains us in our preparing, our repenting, our praying, our fasting and our giving for a couple more weeks.

To the world such habits seem like failure. Once Thanksgiving is finished and the left-over turkey and cranberry sauce are tucked away in the fridge, the world thinks the unrestrained celebrating must begin. People must eagerly rush off to places of “worship” such as Best Buy or Walmart. They must give their offerings at those little altars with cash registers and scanners built into them. Songs of joy, of trees, of snow and mistletoe, and even of an overweight elf dressed in red are piped through omnipresent speakers. These are the things that make for a great Christmas. Who has time for prayer and repentance when there’s so much to do? How can you fast when there are so many delightful treats to be had? And giving to the poor? Perhaps those spare coins in the Salvation Army bucket will suffice.

Perhaps the greatness is yet to come, in all those favorite goodies with chocolate, powdered sugar, cinnamon, and peppermint. It just wouldn’t be a great Christmas without them. And don’t forget the gifts. Oh, the gifts! None of us wants a tacky, thoughtless little something under the tree. No, we want that brand new game, that awesome tool, that outfit that fits just right, or that shimmering bit of bling. These are a few of the season’s great things.

But what if none of these great things were to happen? What if you cannot get done everything you want to get done? What if the shopping does not get finished? What if the decorations do not all get up? Would Christmas be a failure?

Let’s learn to rejoice in being less than a failure. Let’s learn to be least in the kingdom of heaven. As Jesus says, “The one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John].” And who is “least in the kingdom of heaven”? You are. I am. And, yes, you and I are greater than John—not in our persons, but in the gifts that God gives us.

John may have said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29), but he never got to witness the fulfillment of that on the cross or in the Supper. John shooed his disciples away from himself so they could follow the Christ, the Giver of forgiveness and life. And John spoke those immortal words: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30). John did not get to receive the gifts of the promise, but you do!

You who are blind to God’s ways, get to see. God shows you your sin so that you can cry out to Him for mercy. And He gives you His mercy so that you can see how He loves you from eternity and for eternity. You who are lame in your sins—unable to walk through this world without giving in to the worldly notions of greatness—you get to walk. You get to walk in the forgiveness of the Son of God who shed His blood on the cross for you. You who are unclean and infected by the leprosy of self-serving—the disease of thinking that the world must focus on you and your desires—you are cleansed. In the waters of Baptism, Jesus joins you to Himself, to His perfect flesh and His life of giving and serving. In the Supper, Jesus puts His own flesh and blood into you, so that you will be cleansed from all self-serving, so that you will love and enjoy God and love and serve your neighbor. You who are deaf from the din of worldly greatness, you get to hear the sweet words of Absolution and the Gospel proclaimed. You have the joy of sins forgiven. You get to rejoice in being less than John, because you have the true greatness of life with God. And you who are dead in trespasses and sins get to be made alive in the Coming One whom John proclaimed.

These are the things that make for true joy—being least in the kingdom of heaven, repenting of our sins, and rejoicing in the life and forgiveness of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. As we’re about to sing:
“See the Lamb, so long expected,
Comes with pardon down from heav’n.
Let us haste, with tears of sorrow,
One and all, to be forgiv’n;

So, when next he comes in glory
And the world is wrapped in fear,
He will shield us with his mercy
And with words of love draw near” (LSB 345:3-4).

10 December 2018

Homily for Advent 2 - Populus Zion (2018)

Coming Redemption
Luke 21:25-36

Our Coming King has three advents—first, His past coming in the flesh, into time and space; second, His ongoing coming in grace by means of word, water, and bread and wine; and third, His future coming in glory for judgment on the Last Day. In all three advents—past, ongoing, and future—our Lord makes His redemption draw near. Our task, then, is to straighten up and raise our heads. Our task is to stay awake and watch. So says our Lord in today’s Gospel.

“There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves.” Catastrophic changes showing the world coming unglued. God’s good and orderly creation will become unstable and revert to chaos. It’s what happens when God withdraws His loving, creating hand. It’s also what happens when God steps into His creation to bring His redemption.

“People fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world.” Jesus’ future coming will be alarming and cataclysmic for every person, all peoples, every nation, all round the globe. Those who do not hear His Word will have nothing but fainting, fear, and foreboding. But those who do “hear the Word of God and keep it” (Lk. 11:28) will receive the ungluing of creation and the alarming cataclysm with comfort and hope. You see, the coming universal cataclysm points to the coming of our Savior, the Son of God, bringing His redemption near. “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”

So when you see these things taking place, stand up, raise your head, and rejoice. Your redemption, your rescue, is coming!

Now this Day of Judgment stuff can get quite confusing and misleading because of false teachings that run rampant. One of those false teachings is “Millennialism.” Millennialism teaches a literal one thousand-year visible reign of Jesus on earth before His final judgment. Like the Jews of Jesus’ day, some believe such a visible reign of the Messiah would bring a whole millennium of earthly peace and prosperity, with believers serving as Jesus’ cabinet members, so to speak.

This false view comes from a literalistic reading of Revelation 20—where those who did not worship the beast “came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (Rev. 20:4). What Millennialism misses is that the Bible often uses numbers symbolically. Taken with all of Scripture, the thousand years refers to the fully complete time of Jesus’ reign over His Church from His ascension until the Last Day.

A second false teaching about the end of time and Jesus’ return is “the Rapture.” Rapture teaching says that Jesus’ followers will be “caught up…in the air” and removed from the earth. And this will be a secret snatching by Jesus. Think the Left Behind books and movies popular several years ago. One person—the believer—will be taken, and the other person—the unbeliever—will be left, this teaching claims. And Rapture teachers even debate and dispute among themselves. Will this secret taking be “pre-“ or “post-“? Pre-millennium—before the thousand years—or Post-millennium—after the thousand years? Just when will Jesus secretly snatch His followers so they can avoid enduring the time of tribulation?

The problem with Rapture teaching is that it turns the simple, comforting hope of Jesus’ return into complicated stages of uncertainties. It also denies that Christians do indeed suffer before the Last Day, and it claims, against the Bible, that those who reject Jesus will have a second chance to believe in Him and receive salvation during His earthly reign.

And a third false teaching about the end of time is “Reincarnation.” Simply put, Reincarnation believes that when people die, they are reborn in other earth-bound bodies or a series of other bodies. Think chiefly of Hinduism or Buddhism. As a kissing cousin belief, we might also think of that often-heard saying at funerals, that when a loved one dies, he or she “becomes an angel.”

Whether it’s Reincarnation or human beings transmuting into angelic beings, such teachings deny our Lord’s promise of the resurrection of the body at His return. Jesus did say, “An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (Jn. 5:28-29). Hebrews also says, “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27).

So when you see these things taking place…and when you hear such false teachings running rampant…stand up, raise your head, and rejoice. Your redemption, your rescue, is coming!

What will happen on that great and glorious Day when our Lord Jesus returns? Scripture keeps it clear and simple and comforting.
  • Jesus will visibly appear in glory with His angels (Matt. 25:31), and everyone will see Him. No secrets.
  • The many vying, conflicting kingdoms of this world will give way to the one eternal reign of Jesus, and “the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Rev. 21:24).
  • The dead will be raised bodily. The bodies of all believers—both those still alive and those raised from the grave—will be glorified (1 Cor. 15:51-52).
  • King Jesus will judge all people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (Matt. 25:31-46).
  • Satan will be vanquished and banished forever (Rev. 20:10).
  • The current fallen creation will be cleansed and purified by fire, and we will get to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell the “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:7-13).
  • We will be reunited with all who have died in the faith (Rev. 7:9)—our Christian loved ones, friends, mentors, and so on.
  • We will rejoice and exult at the great marriage feast of the Lamb and His Bride made ready, clothed with fine linen, bright and pure (Rev. 19:6-9).
  • And, finally, we will see God face to face, and He will dwell with us forever (Rev. 21:3; 22:4), just as He intended in the beginning.

So, whether you see the whole universe coming unglued as Jesus says, or whether your own personal universe comes unglued in smaller ways, “straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Raise your heads because your redemption began drawing near when the sun hid its light and the earth quaked on Good Friday as Jesus hung lifeless on a tree for you. Raise your heads because your redemption drew nearer when the Sun of righteousness—the Word made flesh—rose bodily on the third day with healing in His wings for you. Raise your heads because your true and only King has ascended to the right hand of the Father where all things are under His feet, where He rules over all authority and power and dominion, and where even now He blesses you with “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3).

Your coming redemption is also already here. It draws near in the washing of regeneration and renewal. It draws near in Jesus’ words that will not pass away. It draws near when you feed on Jesus’ flesh and drink His blood. “Whoever feeds on [His] flesh and drinks [His] blood has eternal life, and [Jesus] will raise him up on the last day” (Jn. 6:54).

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Rom. 15:13). Amen.